Friday, August 12, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 3

The morning was spent getting Melinda and Harry the Kid packed and into the car for the trip to Périgeux to catch the train to Paris. Me, I was getting itchy: I'd already been here 24 hours and hadn't seen anything of where I was. So, after all was settled, I blasted off in the other car to Les Eyzies, destination the Museum of Prehistory.

History is everywhere in Europe, prehistory not quite as much. Lacking buildings, language, and metal, the remains of the earliest humans are harder to detect, older, and harder to preserve. It was in the town of Les Eyzies that a guy named Magnon went into a cave on his property and found human remains and evidence of settlement. If I'm not mistaken, his coining the term préhistoire started the ball rolling. At any rate, caves galore have been discovered, as well as what they call abris, living-places underneath large rock outcroppings. And around this part of the world, they're all over the place: the Rouffignac cave is just down the road, and if I've figured out where we are right, the Magdalenian site is even nearer.

The place to get the grand overview is in the nearby town of Les Eyzies, unfortunately. There, the central French administrator of prehistoric sites maintains an office and visitor center, and the wonderful Museum of Prehistory, which has been there forever, but just got a magnificent makeover, will give you the big overview. There were, for me, two big downsides. First, Les Eyzies is a tourist-trap in the classic manner. Any place whose main street is one souvenir shop after another just sets off bells in my head. The other problem is more one of the material. Anyone with a deep interest in prehistory will be fascinated, following the evolution of hominids into humans, noting the gradual evolution of toolmaking skills until by the Magdalenian you have people whacking fish-harpoons out of flint, and watching the birth of art. Less than that, and it'll be less than fascinating, because there's a lot of stuff in the museum, and I don't know about you, but there just so many flint chips I can look at before my mind starts to wander. The incisions which form the first pictures, too, are kind of hard to get a grip on, although once you see them, they're darned impressive. Obviously, no paintings have been moved to the museum: they'd have expired in transit. So for that you have to go to the caves.

This is something I'd have considered any time but August, but by some sacred decree, every person in France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium goes somewhere else, and among the places they go is the caves. The waiting lists are weeks long, although you can buy tickets on line, that kind of tourism just doesn't appeal. Maybe if I come back off-season. Brian attests to the amazing feeling seeing the paintings in situ gave him, and yeah, I'd like to do that. But the roads and the sites are packed right now.

At any rate, the museum goes from the ground up, and on the top floor, you're released into an abris,

as well as some fantastic views over the valley.

Enlarge that by clicking on it, and you'll see an abris and a bunch of caves.

It didn't take me long to do the museum and as I walked back to the car, I remembered that Brian had said there was a British guy, Tim, who had a really good wine-shop where he sold some of Marc Dalbavie's wines. I figured I'd stop in and see him, and we had a good chat. He opined that the reason Marc's wines are go good are a) they're from young vines, and b) they're organic. The first flew in the face of tradition (not to mention that some of the best California wines I've had have come from vines well over 100 years old), and the second might be true. He said that the flavor of the grapes comes from the first, oh, meter of subsoil. Old vines make good wines because their roots have found a dependable deep source of water, but young vines have young roots in the most nutritious part of the dirt and they're very efficient at finding the good stuff. "The winemakers point out all the rocks in the soil, but what good are rocks when you're looking for water? Listen: 1961 was a legendary year in Bordeaux, one of the greatest wines ever, right? And that's because in 1954 there was a frost that wiped out all the vines and they had to start all over again: those plants were seven years old, no more!" And the organic wines he feels are better because there's no outside chemicals playing with the taste. I didn't have any dough to leave behind, although I noted that the two wines we'd had were €11 and €8, respectively, so next time I'm up I'm going to pay attention. Tim's joint is the only reason to go to Les Eyzies if you're not doing prehistory: it's the only wine shop that's not pushing foie gras and beans and colorful peasant crap at you, and it has a bilingual sign. It's on the way out of town towards the PiP parking lot (the visitor center for the prehistory stuff). Say hi if you make it in.

It took me no time (and no use of a map or GPS) to get me back to the house, and I realized that Brian was using the downtime to do a lot of internet surfing and so on. I wanted to take another drive after lunch, and it turned out that the next evening there were going to be guests and he needed to buy some food to cook for them. That entailed a trip to Rouffignac, where there's a really good butcher. He agreed to submit to some random driving around to see if there was anything cool before we hit the butcher and baker and headed back, which was nice, so we set out, and I again saw a chateau I'd noticed the day before. We drove to a good place to photograph it, but it's in private hands and you can't visit it. Still, it looks neat sticking out of the countryside

Very zoom-lens, though. We then drove around and got semi-lost in the middle of nowhere with nothing but rolling hills and fields and the occasional wrong turn. We saw one of France's rarest birds. I don't know what it was, but it must have been rare, given its behavior. We'd driven into a farmyard and turned around and this bird was transacting business in the road. Despite a fine set of wings, it tried to outrun us. A bird that thinks it can outrun a car is an endangered species, I'd say. He eventually remembered his wings and took off.

Rouffignac turned out to be not so scenic: a young guy working with the Resistance had killed a local Nazi and the Germans retaliated by pretty much levelling the town. The only semi-old thing standing is the local church, and it's not so interesting:

Clearly, this thing's been trashed before. But that view down the alley on the left looked nice...

So, loaded down with chickens and chipolata sausages, plus pastry for tomorrow's breakfast, we headed back to the farmhouse and ended the day with me watching the first two episodes of a U.S. TV program I'd been intensely curious about called Tremé, set in a neighborhood of New Orleans where a friend of mine has a place. It was interesting, but I'm having a hard time suspending my suspicion that every single person in New Orleans is as deeply invested in a musical tradition that basically ended 40 years ago as the program makes them seem. Still, I'm glad it's a hit.

Tomorrow, I told myself, would be a day of some intense touring around, and I whipped out the map and the two guidebooks I'd bought. I now have a plan. Let's see how it works out.

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